Perhaps despite themselves, Joe Deninzon & Stratospheerius are proving the sub-genre of ‘70s progressive rock is very much alive and well in 2012. While Stratospheerius describes itself as a “psychojazz trip funk” band, The Next World is squarely in the linage of works from bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis, along with nods to jazz/rock fusion. While Deninzon doesn’t claim any of these groups as influences, citing instead musicians like Frank Zappa and Jean-Luc Ponty, The Next World seems grounded in the conventions of progressive rock, which gives Stratospheerius the ideal format to showcase their musicianship and songwriting abilities.
For example, one trend in old school prog rock was the tendency to feature lead singers with high-register tenor voices. That’s certainly true of Russian-born bandleader Deninzon. But few other frontmen also excel as masters of the electric violin. A high-flying rock band also usually requires a guitarist capable of both soaring leads and inventive and energetic chord support. For the current incarnation of the group, French fretman Aurelien Budynek does just that. In prog rock, the ensembles are normally built on the tight performances of a rhythm section capable of unusual time signatures and quick tempo changes. Bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore fit that bill to a T.
Their The Next World album opens with the jubilant “Release,” which is about letting go of old restrictions. Tricky time signatures and interwoven vocal lines mark “The Missing Link,” showcasing an extremely psychedelic guitar solo from Budynek. The entire band becomes hopped-up speed demons on “Tech Support,” with appropriate electronic sounds to deliver the message that the singers need that elusive technical support and, “You’re my last resort.”
Offering different moods and approaches, Stratospheerius goes Appalachian on “Climbing,” which erupts into King Crimsonesque rising and falling scales, reflecting the lyrics by a singer who is “still climbing” while he ages and is “looking over my shoulder.” Crashing gongs punctuate the fusion-jazz of “Fleshbot,” which might have fit on Wired if Jeff Beck had been a fiddle master with a streak of humor.
Speaking of humor, “The House Always Wins” goes even further back in time for influences, with a bouncy, swingin’ tribute to the breed of blues you might expect in a MGM musical—that is, if violinists had been plugged in back in the day. (The bassist for this track is former band member Bob Bowen. The album is dedicated to his memory, as he died in a bicycle accident in 2010.)
The variety of styles continue to range from the rough-edged “Gods,” in which “the more the pain, the more gods we need,” to the gentle instrumental, “Ballad for Ding Bang.” After the rock jam of “Road Rage,” we get one song seemingly deliberately crafted for radio airplay, the poppy “One Foot in the Next World.” The song from which the album drew its title has the listener part in the next world, part in this life, and one part twisting the knife. To close off the album, why not add a touch of ELO-style exuberance in “The Prism”? It’s a dramatic echo of “Release” with lyrics calling for the audience to break free from what imprisons us.
Some of the publicity for The Next World might suggest the album is a Deninzon project with Stratospheerius essentially his backing band. That’s far from the case. The album does have ample samplings of Deninzon’s accomplished violin work, but Budynek’s guitars are on display in equal measure. None of the “jams” sound like spontaneous improvisations, but are rather tightly crafted studio pieces including intricately produced vocal articulations, electronic effects, and multi-tracked instrumentation. Most of the songs are five minutes or less, meaning there are few opportunities for extended demonstrations of virtuosity. It’s an album with bright, vibrant tones from four players who aren’t competing, but rather congealing.
For this release, you’re not likely to think Zappa or Mahavishnu Orchestra, but rather Trevor Rabin, Jon Anderson, or perhaps Robert Fripp. In the end, The Next World is an album for fellow musicians to appreciate and prog rock fans to enjoy.